Outlaw Platoon: The Irrelevance of American Virtues
June 28, 2014
Outlaw Platoon: Heroes, Renegades, Infidels, and the Brotherhood of War in Afghanistan was written by Sean Parnell about the American war in Afghanistan that was initiated after September 11, 2001. It is a revealing and, ultimately, a sad book. It is revealing in its presentation of what American troopers did in Afghanistan, as well as revealing of their virtues, their patriotism, their camaraderie, their skills, and their advance weaponry. But it is sad in that, bottom line, these virtues did not and do not matter when it comes to confronting those we have labeled “terrorists.”
Sean Parnell did what, relatively speaking, very few Americans did after 9/11: He decided to become a warrior in the war on terror President Bush had announced after the attacks on 9/11. Parnell was in college, fully ready to leave it in order to enlist in the Army. He was, however, dissuaded by his father, who convinced him to finish college, while participating in ROTC, and then enlist in the war on terror. This is what Sean did. He became a second lieutenant in the US Army and eventually ended up in Afghanistan with the 3d platoon, Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion, of the 87th Infantry Regiment, a unit that took the name “Outlaw Platoon.” He was moved to write his book by, among others, Horace, who wrote: “Many heroes lived…but all are unknown and unwept, extinguished in everlasting night, because they had no spirited chronicler.”
As he presents himself and his men, it is impossible not to be impressed. They are patriotic, they are courageous, they are well trained, and they are committed to each other and to their mission. Which only makes their situation – and ours – sadder.
Why is that? Because these virtues are, to put it bluntly, irrelevant to the outcome of the war on terror or to the war in Afghanistan. Would that it was different but it is not. And this becomes evident very early in the book in two events Parnell describes.
The first event is a meeting with Major Alam Ghul, who is the commanding officer of an Afghan police force stationed at a place called Bandar, a mountain top base that Parnell and his men use as a base camp while they make forays into the country side. At this meeting, it becomes obvious to Parnell and his men that Major Ghul is untrustworthy. He lies about everything, alleged attacks on the camp, missing weapons and equipment, leading Parnell to write, “How do I work with such a man, let alone fight beside him?” [p. 43] Abdul, Parnell’s interpreter or ‘terp, concludes that Major Ghul had sold the missing weapons and equipment on the black market in order to make money for himself. Parnell comes to agree with this interpretation.
A couple of observations are relevant here. When Parnell asks Abdul whether he should press Major Ghul, Abdul and one of Parnell’s sergeant, Sgt. Baldwin, tell him not to. As Abdul says, “This is not how business is conducted here.” And Baldwin says, “No point.” So, in fact, Lt. Parnell is powerless to affect how Major Ghul behaves, which could be generalized as an observation the situation of America in Afghanistan: It is pretty much powerless to affect the kind of changes that would be necessary to accomplish its mission there. Insofar as this is correct, the virtues possessed by Parnell and his men are, strictly speaking, irrelevant to the outcome of the war in Afghanistan.
Secondly, Parnell reacts to Major Ghul as if he, Major Ghul, is an American soldier. That is, American soldiers don’t sell their equipment and weapons on the black market, at least not as a matter of course. But Major Ghul – and other Afghanis – do and do so as a matter of course. Parnell, who seems not aware of this fact, does not ask why Major Ghul behaves as he does and assumes that he, Major Ghul, is just a corrupt individual. Once he makes this assumption, others follow, like with the proper training people like Ghul would not behave as Ghul is behaving. But this seems a bit naïve, does it not? Is it training that accounts for the fact that American soldiers don’t sell stuff on the black market? This seems doubtful.
So what is it about the situation Major Ghul finds himself in that might explain why he sells perfectly good equipment and weaponry on the black market, thereby apparently putting himself and his men at risk? And why do his men, who are also put at risk, not object? But perhaps that is the point: Major Ghul’s behavior does not put him or his men at risk. In fact, perhaps his behavior makes them more secure. Ghul claims that he has received “night letters” from the enemy, that is, death threats from local enemy forces. And as becomes obvious later, these threats were probably made against Ghul’s family as well as Ghul himself. Parnell tells Ghul that he understands Ghul’s circumstances but, of course, he does not. His family is not being threatened with “night letters.” However, such threats are simply how “business is conducted” in Afghanistan and the Americans are powerless to change it, as becomes obvious in the second event, Abdul’s death.
Parnell is very much attached to Abdul, considering that they are almost “soul mates” in that both were motivated by unjust attacks to join the war on terror. Members of Abdul’s family were killed by the Taliban and, of course, Americans died in large numbers on 9/11. And Parnell trusts Abdul as a virtuous man, a loyal man, and a good man.
Abdul then receives a “night letter,” which threatens him and his family because he is helping the infidels. After being denied permission to go home to check on his family, Abdul goes anyway but, on the way back, he is killed, shot through the head, execution style. Parnell grieves for his ‘terp and even pins his Ranger pin on Abdul in his coffin. But Parnell does not ask about the meaning of Abdul’s death, that is, it’s meaning for what the Americans think they are doing in Afghanistan. Abdul was hardly typical of most Afghans Parnell presents to us and his death was not preventable. Or perhaps I should say that his death was preventable but only if Abdul quit helping the infidels. So long as he kept helping the Americans, the Americans were powerless to keep him or his family alive. And this helps to illuminate the motivations of Major Ghul while making them seem reasonable, not to say honorable.
We might wish that in Afghanistan waging war on terrorists would be a virtue that would be rewarded, but wishing doesn’t make it so. In fact, wishing it were so makes it more likely that the virtuous, men like Abdul, would die while those who are not virtuous, men like Major Ghul, live. We might wish that the virtues of our young men and women who serve in the war on terror would be relevant to the outcome of that war, but wishing doesn’t make it so. And, again, wishing it were so only increases the likelihood that the virtuous will die while those who are not virtuous live.